Nineteen players from country-based NAB League clubs were selected in the recent NAB AFL Draft or Rookie Draft and some are moving much further from home than others.
By their top-age seasons, most players from the competition’s six country teams would be used to long travel from their home bases, both to training during the week and to games around Victoria on weekends.
For them, being drafted into the AFL almost certainly means uprooting from their hometown and adapting to life in one of Australian football’s big cities.
While many metro Melbourne-based players are drafted by AFL clubs situated close to home, the likes of new Fremantle duo Hayden Young (ex-Dandenong Stingrays) and Caleb Serong (Gippsland Power) are moving to the west coast of the continent.
Reducing homesickness among interstate recruits has become a priority for certain AFL clubs – perhaps most notably at Brisbane, which has kept 10 country-based Victorian players together on its current list to help them adapt to their new lives far away.
The Dockers appear to have taken the same approach in selecting 2019 Vic Country leaders Young and Serong with picks 7 and 8 in the AFL Draft respectively.
“I was hoping that if I did go there (Fremantle), they’d take Caleb after me,” Young said following his selection by the Dockers.
“I probably knew for about a week that it was a possibility I could be going to Perth, so I had time to get my head around it. Going with Caleb is going to make it a lot easier and we’re really looking forward to the adventure and what it brings.”
The welcome mat was rolled out almost straight away for Young and Serong by Fremantle captain and dual Brownlow Medal-winning midfielder Nat Fyfe, who had a FaceTime chat with the club’s draftees shortly after they were selected.
“It was pretty surreal, just having a chat to him after watching him dominate on the screen,” Serong said. “He’s a super player and I can’t wait to meet him and train alongside him.
“He was just asking how we were feeling… He did ask me (about) if we were lining up together in Round 1 and the ball was coming into our area, if I was going to block for him or if I was going to go for the ball. I told him I’d definitely be blocking for him so he could run through.
“He thought it was a good answer.”
Serong’s Gippsland teammate Sam Flanders is another country-based NAB League player who’ll be hoping for a warm welcome at an interstate AFL club, having been taken with pick no.11 in the AFL Draft by Gold Coast.
The Suns have started assembling a core of young Victorian talent over the last two off-seasons under senior coach Stuart Dew, amid a recent exodus of interstate players that included 2019 Richmond premiership trio Tom Lynch (ex-Dandenong Stingrays), Dion Prestia (Calder Cannons) and Josh Caddy (Northern Knights).
Flanders has headed north alongside this year’s top two AFL Draft picks in Matthew Rowell and Noah Anderson (both ex-Oakleigh Chargers), after the club also added Ben King (Sandringham Dragons), Sam Fletcher and Mitch Riordan (both Dandenong Stingrays) to its ranks across 2018-19.
“(Gold Coast) is pretty far away (from Gippsland), but I’ve already had to move away from home for a couple of years anyway, so I’m sort of used to that,” Flanders said.
“I’m stoked; I think we all are. It’s a really young core group (at the Suns).
“I’ve played against (Rowell and Anderson) a couple of times and… I played with them in the Australian (under-17) game over in New Zealand (in 2018) and then (for the Australian under-18 team) against Casey (in April), so we already have a bit of a connection.
“I’m looking forward to building that connection in the next couple of years.”
Indeed, AFL clubs are clearly aware that for Victorian players drafted interstate from the country and city alike, maintaining that connection to home can prove crucial in the success of their fledgling careers.